In the past, the Lincoln City Council has been known for its freewheeling meetings. There were times when the sessions went into the wee hours of the morning. Council members, and the public, weren’t shy about expressing themselves.
In recent years the meetings have become more restrained and orderly. The earlier meetings could have been chalked up to the growing pains of a relatively new city. Many of the residents didn’t have experience conducting meetings.
Now the community and council are in turmoil again. The council announced it planned to hold a special meeting and go into executive session. Governing boards are allowed to hold executive sessions but they must give a reason and are usually limited to discussion of litigation, possible litigation or contract talks. The Tribune Editorial Board has several problems with the Lincoln council’s action.
Some members said they didn’t know what the executive session was about. Council member Jon Aman motioned at a previous meeting to meet "to receive attorney consultation related to legal actions associated with labor and employment of Sgt. Richard Hoffer." It would seem council members should have a better idea of the substance of the meeting before agreeing to it. It also put Hoffer in an awkward position. The motion provided a tidbit of information that fueled speculation in the community over Hoffer’s status. The Tribune could find no record of civil or criminal cases involving Hoffer. The state labor department and North Dakota Peace Officer Standards and Training Board told the Tribune they have received nothing regarding him.
Lincoln Police Chief Joe Gibbs calls Hoffer a great officer. "I don't really know what's going on. They've (the council) kept me in the dark," Gibbs told reporter Jack Dura. "He's never been written up. He's always had satisfactory or above yearly reviews. Really good officer, I'd hate to see him go."
The council’s action prompted Lincoln Police Officer Joseph Jackson to resign. He planned to relocate to Minot, but resigned earlier than he intended because he didn’t like the council’s treatment of Hoffer.
The council’s action didn’t sit well with some residents. Brandon Schock organized a meeting to discuss the council and about 40 people attended. They decided to circulate petitions asking council members Jon Aman and Karen Daly to resign. They also discussed a possible recall effort against Lincoln City Council President Erv Fischer, but took no action. They voiced support for Lincoln Mayor Gerarld Wise and council member Tom Volk.
Hoffer remains in limbo and Fischer promised any action involving Hoffer will be taken in public. The Bismarck Tribune has asked for an attorney general's opinion to clarify the legality of the closed meeting.
Under the law, the attorney general can issue an opinion on whether the meeting violated the law or not. If the council didn’t follow the law there is no penalty involved. The attorney general can order the council to redo the meeting.
The North Dakota attorney general has issued several opinions that discussions of employee evaluation, or whether to discharge an employee, do not qualify as reasons to hold an executive session. However, from outward appearances, it seems this is what the Lincoln council did.
The Tribune isn’t interested in punishment, we want it clarified whether it was a legal executive session. If it wasn’t, the council will receive guidance for the future from the opinion. It’s likely to be weeks before the opinion is issued, and the council needs to act before then. The next scheduled meeting is Feb. 8.
The council needs to resolve the issue in a public session. The longer the Hoffer case goes on the more divided the community will become. A decision likely won’t end efforts to oust some council members, but it could cool the situation. It will give the council the opportunity to get back to more orderly meetings.